Net Loss (Quarterly Essay 72) by Sebastian Smee [8/10]

The visual arts elude this reviewer, so I’m normally unlikely to read Sebastian Smee, prominent Washington Post art critic, but his topic “Net loss: The inner life in the digital age” (the cornerstone piece in Quarterly Essay 72) is right up my alley. What an inspired impulse to read this nuanced, undogmatic, sharp look at the modern world of Facebook, Twitter and their kin! Smee tentatively labels himself a materialist like me but, as I do, he uses the language of spirituality and creativity as he proceeds to explore “the inner life with its own history of metamorphosis – rich, complex and often mysterious, even to ourselves.” His method isn’t didactic or technically philosophical. Instead he meanders through and around the short stories of Anton Chekhov, the films of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, a portrait by Paul Cezanne, a Rachel Cusk novel, Gillian Wearing’s paintings, and so on. How is social media altering the slippery “inner life,” he asks, and chips away at familiar charges of social media’s adverse impacts. Never more than hesitant, his explorations intoxicated me. In the end, he sees our modern response to mortality and aloneness is “to disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible,” facilitated and urged on by the internet. Are we “excavating too much…?” Can “we find ways to pay attention again to our solitude…?” I cannot recommend too highly this exhilarating, wise reflection.

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